Revise your prepositions with René Magritte

Skill: Grammar Theme: Prepositions
Level: Elementary – Pre-intermediate (A2 – B1)

René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist, well-known for his clever, though-provoking images. His works challenge our perception of reality.

Many of his works are now exhibited in the Magritte Museum in Brussels. For more information see here.

One very useful thing about Magritte’s images is that they are great for helping us revise prepositions.  Let’s take a virtual tour of some of the more famous works, and see how many English prepositions we can use to describe them.

La grande famille - Magritte

La grande famille – Magritte

The bird is hovering over the water.

We see the clouds through the dove.

Le fils de l'homme - Margritte

Le fils de l’homme – Magritte

There is an apple in front of the man’s face.

The man is standing in front of the wall.

The man is standing behind the apple.

There is a hat on the man’s head.

La reproduction interdite - Magritte

La reproduction interdite – Magritte

The back of the man is reflected in the mirror.

There is a book on the mantlepiece, to the right of the man.

Unknown title - Magritte

Unknown title – Magritte

The man is standing beside the curtain, on the left.

There is an apple on top of his hat.

Now it’s your turn.

What prepositions could you use to describe the position of the objects you see in the following paintings?  For example: through, on, between, beside, in front of, out of, in the centre, against, to/on the left/right, on top of, inside, over, under etc.

Use the comments field below to write your sentences.
La durée poignardée - Magritte

1. La durée poignardée – Magritte










Les valeurs personnelles - Magritte

2. Les valeurs personnelles – Magritte










Les valeurs personnelles - Magritte

3. Unknown title – Magritte

English verbs that are often confused

There are a lot of English verbs that look or sound alike but have very different meanings.   Take, for example, the verbs pour and pore.  The pronunciation is identical, the spelling similar.  One of the three sentences following contains an error.  Do you know which one it is?

  1. Shake the sauce vigorously to mix it, then pour over the salad just before serving.
  2. We spent a long time poring over the map to try and work out the shortest route.
  3. As the accountant poured over the financial data he realised the company was in serious trouble.

Did you get it?  Yes it was the last one.  « Pour » means to flow or cause to flow; « pore » means to study closely, like the man in the picture above who is poring over some documents.

We call these word pairs homophones: words that have the same pronunciation, but with different spelling, and with a different meaning.  It’s easy to get them confused and most electronic spellcheckers aren’t much help in this type of situation: they can tell you if a word has been spelled wrongly but they can’t generally identify the misuse of a correctly spelled word.

Check your knowledge of  easily confused English verbs

Here’s a quick quiz on pairs of similar English verbs that are regularly confused.  Note that they are not all exact homophones.  In some cases there is a small difference in pronunciation.

You can check the word pairs with distinct pronunciation here:

lose / loose

raise / rise

Do you have any questions about homophones?  Are there other verbs that you are confused about?  Leave a comment below.

More posts related to learning vocabulary

How to learn academic vocabulary in context.  The Academic Word List is a tool for learning academic vocabulary. It was compiled from a corpus of over 400 academic texts in 28 different subject areas.

The best multilingual online dictionary.  Wordreference.com is a powerful and very reliable online dictionary full of useful features useful for translation.

Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.  The advantage to learning vocabulary through spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when an item is reviewed at appropriate intervals

photo credit: stevegarfield cc

How to learn academic vocabulary in context

How many words do I need to get the score I need in the TOEFL or the TOEIC?

This is a question often asked, and a difficult one to answer exactly.   The Linguist , Steve Kaufmann recommends that to achieve a score of 750 or higher in the TOEIC the optimum time to sit the test is when a learner has reached a vocabulary of 7 – 8,000 words.  An increase of 100 points in the TOEIC could represent an increase of about 2,000 words in your vocabulary.

Which words do I need?

Although estimating the total number of words in English is a nearly impossible task, the 600,000 definitions in the Oxford English dictionary give an indication that English vocabulary is indeed vast.  Some estimate that 25,000 new words are added to the language each year.

So, where should I start?

There are a number of tools to help with this and one is the Academic Word List.  It was compiled from a corpus of over 400 written academic texts in 28 different subject areas.  The result is a list of 570 academic words grouped according to frequency.

Some ideas for using the AWL.

Just memorising lists of vocabulary is not only boring but also an ineffective way of adding new words to your vocabulary.  The words are much more likely to stick if you learn them in the context , by reading material that you are interested in.
The AWL provides an easy way of finding academic vocabulary in articles on subjects that interest you.  For example lets take a recent article out of The New Scientist, Time to shrink the atomic clock.  Copy the text of the article and paste it into the AWL Highlighter, choose the level of words you would like to study (1 is the most frequent, 10 includes all the words in the list including the least frequent), and click submit.  This will produce a copy of the article with all the words highlighted so you can learn them in context.

To test yourself further, you can come back to the same text a week later, and create a gap-fill exercise based on the words that you learnt.  Paste the text into the AWL Gapmaker, decide whether you would like the list of words to appear as a list at the bottom of the document or not, and click submit.  A free online gapfill exercise will open, testing the exact words you have been working on.

Academic vocabulary in this blog post: academic, achieve, areas, compiled, context, create, definitions, document, estimate, highlighted, indication, submit, task, text.

How well do you know these words?  You can test yourself with a gapfill created using the AWL based on this post.

Academic Word List (AWL)

photo credit: Raul P cc

The best multilingual online dictionary

Who doesn’t know WordReference.com? It has become so widely used that I risk repetition by featuring it here. But I still remember back to the BWR period of my life (« before Word Reference »), so for any readers who find themselves in that situation, let me introduce to you a multi-lingual dictionary that is simply the best.

It’s nothing much to look at, but don’t let appearances deceive you. It’s a powerful and very reliable online dictionary full of useful features for translation:

  • 14 English to another language pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and soon Arabic)
  • 5 « to English » pairs (Spanish, French, Italian, German, Russian)
  • other combinations including Spanish to French and Portuguese, French and Portuguese to Spanish.
  • monolingual dictionaries (English, Spanish),  synonym dictionaries and conjugation tables.
  • plugins for Firefox and widgets for your blog.
  • accessible for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

But the feature that keeps me coming back is the forums. When you search for a word, not only do you get a detailed list of usages, audio pronunciation and compound forms, but you also get links to questions that have been posted in the forums relating to how to translate the term. Every translator knows the frustration of looking up a word and not finding a translation that fits. The WordReference community has become so huge that there is a very good chance that someone has already come across the same problem, and may have posted a question about it. Translation dictionaries are valuable tools but can never replace native speaker instinct, which is why the human contact available in the forums of WordReference is so valuable.

There are many online dictionaries available, but I haven’t felt the need to look further than WordReference. What about you – do you have a favourite free online translation tool? Tell us about it in the comments.

photo credit: jovike cc

Building vocabulary through spaced repetition

When it comes to vocabulary learning there’s a lot to be said for learning by rote.

At this point a lot of language teachers will probably close this page and never come back.  « Traditional » methods of memorising vocabulary have become very unfashionable.  New words must be learnt in context or not at all!

I really like the theory of learning vocabulary naturally in context, as this mimics the way we acquire our first language as children.  But I wonder if we are not being a little optimistic when we seek to recreate the environment of first language acquisition in the methods we use to teach adults (or adolescents) a second language.

For one thing, children learn very differently to adults.  They are not conscious of learning the way that adults are; learning happens as if by accident.  Adults learn « on purpose », using methods that they have consciously chosen.  We lose a lot of the natural learning capacity of children as we grow older, and need tools to assist us in learning.  Some of these tools can seem quite « artificial » in comparison.  This is why rote memorisation of vocabulary has been so criticised.

Perhaps it is time to rehabilitate vocabulary memorisation.  OK, it’s not very exciting, but a couple of questions might be in order: is vocabulary building in a foreign language worth it?  If we see it as valuable, is it worth some discipline and effort?  Does all learning really have to be « fun »?  Or are we willing to sweat a little bit in order to reach the goal of communicating more effectively in our foreign language?

I am not an expert in second language acquisition theory, but a language learner and teacher.  These observations are based on experience, not research, so it is quite possible that I have drawn some faulty conclusions.  That said I have noticed as an adult learner that although reading in a foreign language is my preferred context for learning new vocabulary, if I don’t note the new vocabulary and have some method for revising it, I don’t learn it.  My considerations from the teaching point of view are much more pragmatic: I find that intentionally teaching vocabulary in context requires a lot of work and preparation that I don’t always have time for.  It’s one thing to organise a reading or listening activity where you just highlight the vocabulary that happens to occur in the material, but this is very  haphazard.  Teaching vocabulary that is « useful » on the other hand (whether from the point of view of word frequency or  the specific purposes for which the learner requires the language) necessitates hours of searching for materials that  contain the target vocabulary.

So I come back again to word lists.  I’ve made it one of my goals this year to increase my repertoire of activities and tools for memorising vocabulary effectively.  In terms of technology, we have already reviewed the online flashcard system Popling.  Today I came across another tool which seems to fit the way my brain works better, so I took it for a test drive.

AnkiThe app. is appropriately named Anki, the verb for « memorise » in Japanese.  It has some similarities to Popling, although its designer seems to have given more thought to how the memory actually works.  It is marketed as a « Spaced Repetition System », and recognises that memorisation is actually work,  not the « learning without studying » that Popling advertises.  The idea behind spaced repetition is that memory loss slows down considerably when a memorised item is reviewed at appropriate intervals.

Anki is obviously a real labour of love.  It is a work in development though. the interface is not quite as sharp, the help a bit limited and I didn’t find it as intuitive to use.

You can create your own flashcard piles or « decks », or import one of a large number of existing decks (contributed by users so of varying quality).  Anki is very definitely oriented toward language-learning, although it could also be put to good use in other disciplines requiring memorisation.  There is a bent toward Asian languages in the list of available decks.

Some of the features:

  • screencasts for a quick introduction to how it works
  • desktop and online synchronisation so you can study anywhere
  • possibility of sharing decks, and for teachers to « push » materials to a number of students at once.
  • intelligent scheduler which allows you to very easily categorise a flashcard according to difficulty.  Anki will calculate the interval between revisions according to whether you remembered the item easily, with difficulty or not at all.
  • flashcards are quite configurable, and Anki can handle very large decks, even up to 100,000 +.
  • a growing directory of plugins
  • Anki it is completely free, although a donation is in order for a truly useful application.

Popling has the advantage of flashing cards up while you are doing other things which is the idea behind « learning without studying ».  Not everyone enjoys such interruptions, however.  Anki requires you to be a lot more intentional, setting aside specific learning times, although you have a lot of freedom to determine how much time you spend and the number of items you want to revise for memorisation each day.

More on Spaced Repetition Systems.

For general information on building vocabulary, I recommend the following resources:

photo credit: susivinh cc

How to improve your reading skills with Google News

Some people are addicted to news and current affairs.  If you are a language learner who is also a « news junky » – who enjoys following the latest news, here’s a great idea for improving your reading skills and increasing your vocabulary.

It is true that the language of newspapers is often very complex.  It is estimated that to read an English language newspaper fluently you need about 4,000 words.  This can be overwhelming for some learners.  And then there’s the question, with so many newspapers, where do I start?  Few of us have the time in a day to search the Internet for the articles that we find interesting.

Enter Google News.  When I first looked at Google News, the thing I liked about it was that it brings all the breaking news from a variety of the world’s newspapers and puts them all together in one place.  But I didn’t realise that it can do a lot more.

google-news-1-2One of the best motivations for improving reading skills is reading things we are interested in.  This sounds so basic, but perhaps you remember doing reading comprehension exercises in school which you found really difficult, mainly because the subject matter was so boring!  What do you like to read about?

First select the country of your choice for your Google News page.  The default setting is for the US (why am I not surprised?)  This will give you a standard layout like this:
You might decide that you are interested in sport, but not interested in entertainment.  You can move the sports section up the page, and delete the entertainment section.  You can also easily add news headlines from several different countries by selecting « Add a standard section« .  Let’s say you are studying French.  It is possible to add news from France, French-speaking Canada and Belgium to give you a more international perspective.

google-news-4Let’s say you are particularly interested in Finance, or perhaps you are learning English vocabulary for an exam like the TOEIC, and you need to work on your financial words.  Google News allows you to create your own personalised content.  You select « Add a custom section« , and then « advanced options« .   Let’s say the words you are revising are banking, finance, interest, loan and credit.  Type in these key words, then give the section a label, « Finance » for example.  Once you have saved these options you will see that a selection of Finance articles, each containing your chosen key words, is waiting for you.  You can move it up or down the page to suit you.
You can change your content as often as you like.  The best way to revise vocabulary is according to theme.  This week it might be finance, next week transportation.  You could create a new section for transportation with related key words to replace the one on finance.  The point is that the best way for revising vocabulary you know, and for learning vocabulary that is new, is in the context of real everyday language.  Memorising lists of words is not usually an effective way of increasing your vocabulary.

Google News is a great addition to your language learning toolbox.  Do you use it already?  Have you found it useful?  How do you like to use Google News?  Join the conversation in the comments.

Trick yourself into learning with online flash cards

cards« Learning without studying » is the strapline of a new language learning application called Popling.  I think the idea that you can learn anything without working for it is a bit unrealistic, but I do think that the creators of Popling are on to a good thing.

The idea is to help you by « tricking » your brain into learning while you are doing other things.  It works on a classic pedagogical tool which every language learner has used at some time or other: the flashcard.

popling-2So what’s new?  Flashcards have been around forever.  Popling is flashcard software which works especially well for second language learners who spend a big part of their day in front of a computer.  Every few minutes as you work, Popling will display a question or a prompt in a small online flash card window.  It is very easily configurable for vocabulary in the language you are learning, so that if you are trying to learn French kitchen vocabulary for example, you might get the prompt « dishwasher ».  If you have learnt the word, you will type in « lave-vaisselle ».  If you haven’t learnt it, you can take a peek at the word and try to memorise it for next time.

You also have the choice of ignoring the flashcard if it arrives at a bad moment, and it will just go away.  Apparently it’s « learning with no motivation required ».  I doubt that it is really possible to learn anything without motivation, but in spite of the blah blah, it is a very good tool.

You can either subscribe to an existing set of flashcards in the language you are learning, or create your own.  It takes a bit of work writing your own flashcards, but it’s part of the learning process and that way you can be sure to learn the vocabulary you need.

It requires the installation of a lightweight Adobe Air desktop application.  Have you tried it?  Found any other interesting uses for it?  Have your say in the comments.

For more information on online flash card systems, see Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.

News words: transplant

plasterThis week many international newspapers reported that a man may have been cured of AIDS.  A number of health-related words can be learnt from these stories.  Note that a cure is something that makes someone with an illness healthy again.  It is pronounced /kju:r/.


Doctors in Germany say a patient appears to have been cured of HIV by a bone marrow transplant from a donor who had a genetic resistance to the virus.

BBC News

A transplant (n.) is when something is transplanted (moved from one place or person to another), especially an operation in which a new organ is put into someone’s body.


The clinic said since the transplant was carried out 20 months ago, tests on the patient’s bone marrow, blood and other organ tissues have all been clear.

BBC News

Bone marrow (n.) is soft fatty tissue in the centre of a bone.


The virus has infected 33 million people worldwide.

As Dr Huetter – who is a haematologist, not an HIV specialist – prepared to treat his leukaemia with a bone marrow transplant, he recalled that some people carried a genetic mutation that seemed to make them resistant to HIV infection.

New Zealand Herald

To infect (v.) is to pass a disease to a person, animal or plant.  A person, animal or plant having received the disease is infected (adj.), and is said to have an infection (n.).  A disease that is able to infect is said to be infectious (adj.)

Infectious can also have a positive meaning, as in an ‘infectious laugh’ or ‘infectious enthusiasm’, describing something that has an effect on everyone who is present and makes them want to join in.


Roughly one in 1,000 Europeans and Americans have inherited the mutation from both parents, and Huetter set out to find one such person among donors that matched the patient’s marrow type. Out of a pool of 80 suitable donors, the 61st person tested carried the proper mutation.

CityNews, Toronto

Mutation (n.) is the way in which genes change and produce permanent differences.  The verb is mutate.

News words : solve

If you are learning online, the latest news is a good place for learning English words.  This week’s news word is:


Let’s look at how this word and related words are used in the world’s newspapers this week.  Click on the links to see the words in their original context.

Gaza crisis

BEIJING, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) — Compromise and concession between Israel and Hamas, instead of military force, are the only way to solve the ongoing Gaza crisis, Chinese analysts say.

To solve (verb) something is to find an answer to a problem.

Reconciliation is the only solution to the decades of Israel-Palestine conflict, Wang said, emphasizing Israeli and Palestinian leaders need to show extraordinary political courage and vision to solve the conflict.

A solution (noun) is the answer to a problem.

As early as Jan. 8, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1860, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza « leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces. »

A resolution (noun) is an official decision that is made after a group or organization have voted.

Quotes taken from Xinhua.

gas_rangeGas crisis

The Russian leader said Moscow was ready to do « everything it could » to resolve the gas crisis.

To resolve (verb) is to end a problem or difficulty.  It is a synonym for solve.

MOSCOW, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday that efforts to find a resolution to the gas dispute with Ukraine had so far yielded no results.

A resolution (noun) can also be a synonym for solution.  ‘Resolution’ is more formal than ‘solution’.

Quotes taken from Reuters.

US Recession

New York Mayor Resolute Amid Recession (headline)

To be resolute (adj.) is to be determined in character, action or ideas.

Quote taken from tothecenter.com.

Note that solve/solution is pronounced differently to resolve/resolution.

solve (/s/)  resolve (/z/)

solution (/s/) resolution (/z/)

resolute (/z/)

Resolution is a useful word for the month of January, when we make « New Years Resolutions ».  In this context a ‘resolution’ is a promise that you make to yourself to start doing something good or stop doing something bad.  My new year’s resolution is to offer useful material on this blog to help you learn English or to learn French.  What’s yours?

News words: « break »

Every week we will focus on a key word in the news. The best way to learn new vocabulary is in context, so we will look at how each word is used in the world’s newspapers.

The word from this weeks world news is

break / broke / broken

Todays quotes are all taken fromguardian-logo Click on the links in the quotes to open the original article.

The Russia-Ukraine gas crisis

But analysts point out that, since the last serious crisis broke out in 2006, Europe has done very little to avert shortages

If something dangerous or unpleasant breaks out (phrasal verb), it suddenly starts.

The dispute, viewed by the EU as a purely commercial one until recently, threatens a fresh breakdown in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

A breakdown is a failure to work or be successful.

The crisis in Gaza

Even if the Israeli forces break (verb) Hamas’s grip on power, officials admit any such « victory » may be temporary and will bring more difficulties in its wake.

(verb) To cause something to divide into two or more parts our groups (to weaken something)

Khalid Mish’al (This brutality will never break our will to be free, 6 January)

(verb) To cause something to stop working by being damaged

The president-elect, Barack Obama, broke his silence by saying he was « deeply concerned » about civilian casualties on both sides.

(verb) To interrupt or stop something

Ideas for a weekend holiday


A break (noun) is a short rest.

The costs of environmental measures to the automotive industry

EU schemes for improving consumption and safety and reducing emissions would add « billions of euros of cost to the industry at a time when revenues are below break-even for most companies ».

To break even is to have no profit or loss at the end of a business activity. If revenues are below break-even (used as a noun), this means the business has made a loss;

Notice that newspapers like The Guardian often talk about « breaking news« , which is news about events that have only just happened. The « breaking news » about something is probably the first time the event has been reported.